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'Dear Darwish': A poetically and politically brave book

Israeli-American poet Morani Kornberg-Weiss breaks with conventional poetics and mainstream politics. But who, exactly, is Dear Darwish for? 

Dear Darwish, Morani Kornberg-Weiss’s first collection of poetry, opens with a prose poem that that doubles as an indictment of Israeli society. Cleverly disguised as a letter, it is addressed to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Like the poems that follow it, “Dear Mahmoud” does many things at once. It captures the violence inherent in establishing and maintaining the Jewish state. It accurately depicts Israelis’ objectifying and dehumanizing view of Palestinians. It shows how the state’s violence against Palestinians has seeped into Israeli society, permeating all aspects of life.

It’s no short order to do all this without losing the poetry to polemics. But Kornberg-Weiss manages to stay true to the horrible, tragic content of this book—including the nakba, the occupation, torture, death, and dispossession—while rendering a beautiful collection. That doesn’t mean that she dresses things up or distorts reality to make it palatable. Rather, she uses the lyrical to strip things down and offer them up to the reader, who is unable to tear their eyes away from Kornberg-Weiss’s searing, heartbreaking images.

Take for example:

That marks one difference between Israelis and
Palestinians: so many Israelis walk around with blood on their
hands, hands soaked in red, red hands shaking, exchanging
blood, patting a bloody hand on one’s shoulder, leaving a trace of
a hand, a hand running through one’s hair, scratching a nose,
leaving creases of liquid clotted and dried up on the cheekbones,
taking a bath and then running a hand over one’s arms, arm pits,
breasts then thighs, genitals, feet all covered with blood, blood
trying to wash itself but it’s a blood so ordinary you cannot even
see it.
I write this letter.
Red fingerprints smear on the page.

But Dear Darwish isn’t just about confronting the occupation, nor does it fall into the “shooting and crying” genre. As the title of the book and the title of the first poem both suggest, this collection is about creating dialogue. While one reviewer slammed Kornberg-Weiss for writing the collection “to” Darwish, I would argue that Kornberg-Weiss is acknowledging the inescapable power dynamic of the occupier/occupied and the deeply narcissistic nature of Israeli society. In a poem titled “david antin talked about tuning,” she writes: “…i break away/from the ‘fantasy of understanding’/i barely/recognize myself in you mahmoud i/recount various experiences of misappropriation i/imagine no common knowing but my arrogant/fantasy of moving so close in you mahmoud”

'Dear Darwish' by Morani Kornberg-Weiss

‘Dear Darwish’ by Morani Kornberg-Weiss

So the question remains: who are these poems actually addressed to?

I struggled with this from the second page where Kornberg-Weiss asks Darwish in Hebrew, Arabic, and English what their common language should be. I was living in Bethlehem the first time I read the collection. When I ran into these sentences, I read the three questions aloud to my partner.

While he can read the Hebrew alphabet and speaks a bit, he didn’t have enough to get the question, which I translated for him. And he helped me, in turn, as I clumsily read the Arabic.

“Who’s her audience?” we both wondered aloud, in English. Forty-eighters who speak English? English-speakers who read Hebrew and Arabic? Hebrew-speakers who also speak English and Arabic? Arabic-speakers who speak English and Hebrew?

It might seem like I’m beating the language issue to death but poetry is all about language and, indeed, language is an issue that arises throughout collection. Language plays a central role in the conflict, as well. What sort of words one uses to discuss “the situation”—as well as one’s silences, what goes unsaid—reveals much about one’s feelings on the place and its politics. And the fight for public opinion is a war of words.

So, of course, it’s significant that the collection is written in English. Equally significant is the fact that Dear Darwish was written (and published) in the diaspora. In fact, the poems seem to me to be a collection that could only be written outside of Israel. I asked Kornberg-Weiss about this and she agreed, explaining to +972:

…my political journey began in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. I remember seeing protestors who supported the operation and “Israel’s right to defend itself.” That slogan didn’t sound right at the time, although initially I couldn’t articulate why.

The collection itself was conceptualized and written in the U.S. after the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. I tried to make sense of how one Israeli solider could be released in exchange for over one thousand Palestinian lives. The project could only be written outside of Israel. I feel as though I wore blindfolds while living in Israel. I was not exposed to “the other side.” Both the Israeli education system and the media censor Palestinian history and even current events. Even now in “Operation Protective Edge” the media failed to expose the atrocities in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli attacks. The photographs in the Israeli newspapers focused primarily on the Israeli side, while sanitizing and censoring the destruction in the Gaza Strip.

Dear Darwish could be read as a series of letters to the Jewish diaspora, or as a sort of self-interrogation that the Jewish community is meant to overhear (and undertake). The collection seems intent on pushing the increasingly divisive conversation about Israel into more radical (dare I say anti-Zionist?) territory. And that Kornberg-Weiss quotes a line from a poem by the Canadian-Jewish Rachel Zolf on the very first page is also telling. Zolf is a poet who has been publicly critical of the occupation and the author of Neighbour Procedure, a collection of poems revolving around the occupation; Kornberg-Weiss is grounding her book in that conversation.

Both the content and the immediate alignment with Zolf make Dear Darwish brave writing that, as we have seen with the Salaita affair, could have an impact on Kornberg-Weiss’s career. Her exploration of form is equally bold and makes the collection worth reading regardless of one’s politics.

That Kornberg-Weiss, who tells me that she grew up in a “center-right” family, wrote Dear Darwish and that Blaze VOX had the courage and integrity to publish it are both encouraging signs that the conversation about Israel-Palestine is changing—at least in the diaspora.

Book Review: Outrunning occupation in Palestine’s ‘capital’
Traces of the Nakba: Book review of ‘Stone, Paper’

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    1. Whiplash

      Just another book attempting to dehumanize Israeli Jews. The author writes that many Israelis have blood on their hands but there is no mention of the substantial blood of 25,000 Israelis and Jews murdered in the conflict. There is no mention of the blood of the Fogel children, the youngsters blown apart in the Sbarro Pizza massacre, Shelly Dadon strangled on the way to a job interview, the elderly Israelis torn to shreds in the Park Hotel bombing or the Israeli teenagers murdered on their way home from school. If the author looked back over the last one hundred years or so she would have seen a lot of spilling of Jewish blood by Arabs and Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    2. David

      Great review and the preview of the book on Amazon seems fascinating and brave. As an American Jew I too have struggled with the paradox of being a liberal zionist. After this last operation in the Gaza strip I know that change will come from outside (like in South Africa). My family members who live in Israel can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a change and see that they are no longer the victims and it is okay to criticize Israel for its policies and occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn8

      A Jew-hating Jewish settler living in the West Bank reviews a book by a Jew-hating Israeli Jew living in Canada about hating Jews and Israel. Hilarity ensues.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        If your landlord in the west bank is palestinian then you’re not a settler.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn8

          Ohhhhh. Is that the definition? I thought that Israelis that live in “occupied” territory are all settlers. So, it isn’t the place you live but the ethnicity of your landlord? Well there is a perfectly objective and non-racist definition of the matter. Thank you.

          So, if her landlord sold her apartment to an Israeli Jew then she would magically turn into a settler? What if her landlord sold her apartment to an Israeli Arab? How about if the landlord sold the apartment to a Norwegian? Tricky situation then, where a person’s status depends entirely on factors outside of their control and changes without their action.

          But, nonetheless, thank you for enlightening me with your highly useful definitions. I do appreciate it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gabriel

            Your criticism is misplaced. Settler build on hilltops, segregate themselves, ensure their roofs are a different colour (it’s the law) so they don’t get bombed. The bombing targets palestinians, civilans, and those that chose to live among them. In the light of this, can you bring up the charge of racism?

            The settlers share next to nothing with the palestinians – not roads, not water. Living among the palestinians, with consensus and sharing the same things is not settlement, whether you own or rent the place, whether your are jewish or not. It’s not a difficult distinction to make.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn8

            1)You haven’t really answered the questions I raised about Haifawi’s retarded definition.

            Instead you have argued that some vague consensus among Palestinians rather than any objective definition is what makes Mya not a settler. You cant really win this argument. Either Israeli Jews living in the WB are all, including Mya, objectively settlers, or they are not. Any distinction you try to draw will be based either on the political views of the Israeli Jews or of the Palestinians. Neither of these can be used for any definition to actually be objective.

            2) what the fhutk are you talking about? No one is bombing any place with any settlements. Additionally, both jews and arabs build houses with both red roofs and without. It is also dumb as shit to think the IDF needs the roofs to be a specific color to know where the arabs and jews live. Whereever you read that garbage, stop reading it. It is bullshit misinformation.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Richard

      Full self-parody mode here. But I think she forgot to mention Israelis’ fangs when she was talking about BLOOD. You know, BLOOD? Delicious, delicious BLOOD?

      Reply to Comment